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Survey: Voters oppose hotel plan

Harry Teasley Jr. has made no secret of his view that building a city-subsidized convention center hotel is a bad idea.

At a Wednesday news conference, the soft drink executive presented the results of a survey he says show that a majority of city residents agree with him.

Teasley himself commissioned the survey, conducted by New York marketing research firm Audits and Surveys Worldwide. He presented the results little more than 24 hours before today's scheduled vote on the $141-million hotel project by the Tampa City Council.

Teasley's survey, an Oct. 14-18 telephone poll of 402 registered voters in the city, showed considerable opposition to public financing of the project, said Barry Feinberg of Audits and Surveys.

"Three in four Tampa voters agree that subsidizing the new convention center hotel is an unwise use of taxpayer dollars," Feinberg said, quoting from the written report.

Feinberg said "the overwhelming majority of Tampa voters _ nine of 10 _ strongly agree that the citizens of Tampa should vote on the proposed new convention hotel and its financing before it is built," and that "two-thirds of the registered voters in Tampa say that if they had the opportunity, they would vote against the hotel with publicly subsidized financing."

Mayor Sandy Freedman's spokesman John Dunn was skeptical about the report.

"Opinion polls are, I guess, good in political campaigns, but absolutely worthless in governing and deciding issues," Dunn said. "We could go out and produce our own poll that gave the results we wanted."

Teasley defended the study, for which he has not yet paid the estimated $15,000 cost.

"It's bet-the-ranch kind of data. No, better. It's bet-the-children's-trust-fund kind of data," said Teasley, president and CEO of Coca-Cola Nestle Refreshments.

City Council member Scott Paine, who met with representatives of Audits and Surveys Wednesday afternoon to go over the survey report, expressed cautious approval of the results.

"The survey is done very professionally, but we must be very careful to understand what it tells us," said Paine, a University of Tampa political scientist who specializes in research and polling. "The survey shows the voters have concerns, but it doesn't raise their level of information about it. Everyone I've talked to about this, whether they opposed it or had concerns about it, at least understood how someone could support the project after I explained how it would be structured."

Paine said that he had not made a decided how he would vote today but that he opposed the idea of a public referendum on the issue.

"It's not a meaningful exercise ," Paine said. "The issues are extremely complex and take a lot of time to deal with. I'm not smarter or better than my constituents, but they hired me to make decisions wih their interests in mind."

Beach Park civic activist Margaret Vizzi said she was one of the registered voters interviewed for Teasley's poll.

"After the second question, I said this has to be a poll that was put on by the opposition," Mrs. Vizzi said. "It was so slanted . . . and not only the questions, but the intonation of the (pollster's) voice."

Lloyd Pettegrew, a professor of communications at the University of South Florida who consulted on the survey, defended the way it was conducted.

"Before we said anything positive or negative, we gave the voters a chance to tell us what they already heard and thought about the project," Pettegrew said. He said the poll was not "put up by Harry Teasley."

Teasley has a personal friendship with the CEO of Audits and Surveys, but Feinberg said his company's research is unbiased.

_ Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this story.